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LYNCHBURG, VA. - Zeroing in on her evangelical base, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann told 10,000 students at the nation's largest Christian university Wednesday not to compromise in their personal, spiritual or political beliefs.
"Don't settle, that's what Jesus says to us," the Minnesota Republican told a convocation of students at Liberty University, a religious school founded 40 years ago by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Bachmann offered personal advice based on her own life, including a look inside her marriage to Twin Cities Christian therapist Marcus Bachmann, a close political adviser who accompanied her to the sprawling campus in the Virginia foothills.
"I respect my husband's leadership of our home," Bachmann told a smaller gathering of law and government students. "He respects me and what I bring to our marriage and relationship. He is the head of our home, and I'm not threatened by that, because I know this man loves me."
In response to a question from 23-year-old senior Sean Boden of Nathalie, Va., Bachmann said that she does not consider her quest for the presidency to violate fundamentalist doctrines about the submissive role of women in the church.
"I am not running to be anybody's spiritual authority," Bachmann said. "Scripture deals with scriptural authority. That doesn't in any way put me in spiritual authority over a man."
Boden said that the gender issue has been a concern among many evangelicals, but that he is a Bachmann fan. "I love the fact that she stands for her Christian values," Boden said. "She will stand strong even when she is standing alone."
Reaching out to evangelicals
Bachmann's stop at Liberty University comes as her campaign amps up its outreach to the nation's evangelicals. On Friday she met with several hundred pastors in Nashville, accompanied by the Rev. Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park. Hammond announced from the pulpit Sunday that he is joining her campaign.
Bachmann is not alone in courting the support of socially conservative evangelical Christians. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Tea Party rival in the presidential race, made a stop at Liberty University earlier this month.
Potential candidate Sarah Palin is scheduled to come to the campus Oct. 8, following a cavalcade of White House aspirants who have dropped by Liberty, including Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.
For Bachmann, it was a homecoming of sorts. She visited Liberty University in August, shortly after her victory in the Iowa straw poll in Ames, the high-water mark of her campaign so far. Liberty is a Christian-centered school similar to Oral Roberts University, where Bachmann got her law degree.
"Our students consider her to be one of us," said Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., whose father opened Liberty in 1971 as Lynchburg Baptist College. Bachmann recently won a presidential straw poll among students at the school.
Falwell emphasized that the candidate appearances do not constitute an endorsement, noting that President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also have been invited.
A sign of the campus' importance in presidential politics was John McCain's commencement speech at Liberty in 2006, even after his clashes with the senior Falwell and other religious conservatives.
Vows of a comeback
Bachmann's visit to Liberty came as she continues to trail in national polls. Even in Iowa, which she has made a focus of her campaign, a poll Wednesday showed her in second place behind Romney.
Speaking to reporters after her speech, Bachmann said, "I intend to be the comeback kid in this race," vowing to build on her support among Iowa's evangelical voters.
That has dictated a strategy of differentiating herself as the most consistent fiscal and social conservative in the GOP field, a message she underscored at Liberty University in starkly personal terms.
She skewered Obama's health care overhaul as his most "egregious" intrusion on personal freedom, alleging that it represents "the first time in the history of our nation that we have taxpayer-subsidized abortion." She made no reference to federal law and language added to the landmark health care legislation that backers say expressly forbids federal money from being used to fund abortions.
During her speech, Bachmann acknowledged that holding to her fundamentalist values wasn't always easy, recounting how she had to put off law school for a while to allow for her husband's ministry studies.
"I'll be honest, there were nights when I cried," Bachmann recounted. "But I also knew that I needed to defer what I wanted in deference to my husband."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.